Maniac Cop 1988 Review
Maniac Cop 1988
Directed by: William Lustig
Starring: Tom Atkins, Laurene Landon, Bruce Cambell, Robert Z’Dar
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Ok I am going to be a tad controversial here and I know that many of you will disagree with me (especially JA Kerswell over at Hysteria Lives), but 1981 is not my favourite year of the slasher period. Don’t get me wrong, I can see the reason why people will think I’m a tad crazy. ’81 gave us the best entry to the Friday the 13THseries, not to mention a sequel to Halloween. We also had, to mention just a handful, My Bloody Valentine, Pieces, Pranks, The Prowler (my personal favourite), The Burning and Small Town Massacre – all of those are genre classics that actually achieved a run in the cinema instead of just a quiet transfer to budget VHS. (Also in February of that year in a pueblo blanco in Spain, someone special was born – well, me…) – However the best time of the cycle for this particular slasher enthusiast was 1988. Hold on, hold on – allow me to explain why…
Ok, so admittedly, my justification for this is based on personal experiences. I was knee-high to a hubcap back then and can clearly recall searching video stores, after seeing Halloween on TV, for more guilty pleasures that I could sneak up to my room and add to my forbidden collection of ex-rental VHS. What a large amount of trash that there was for me to choose from. Who can honestly admit to not enjoying the cheese on toasts that were Hack-O-Lantern, Iced, Demon Warrior, Memorial Valley Massacre, The Last Slumber Party or Fatal Pulse? Or the gore splattered Evil Dead Trap, Demonwarp or 555? For a decent mystery with a good twist you could do much worse than Al Filo Del Hacha, whilst franchise fans had an outright extravaganza with Installments to Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13TH and Sleepaway Camp to contend with. Just to think, I haven’t even mentioned Scott Spiegel’s wonderfully audacious and awesomely gory, Intruder.You see, my argument is gathering steam…
Despite that impressive collection of titles, the biggest players of the category had admittedly been running a little dry on ideas. Halloween 4 was a major disappointment and we will never get to see how John Carl Buechler’s The New Blood may have been had big brother not gone mad with his scissors during certification. The genre was screaming out for a new icon to lead the way in to the brave oncoming decade and in 1988 we very nearly had one. (Two if you are one of those that consider Child’s Play to be a slasher flick.)
This competently produced and visibly slick offering boasted a brilliant synopsis that had the potential to revitalise the slasher the same way that Halloween had done ten-years earlier. Carpenter has said that he thought that his seminal flick was so successful because he had taken horror away from the cliché of desolated environments and on to the streets and schools that we associate with secure normality. Maniac Cop attempted to build on this by turning the Police – the entity that we immediately associate with safety when horror strikes– in to the film’s bogeyman.
With a script from Larry Cohen, a director in William Lustig who had already had a successful stab at stalk and slash cinema with Maniac and a dreamy ensemble of B-Movie favourites, this looked to have more than enough in its locker to rival the titans for a place at the peak of the splatter-laden pyramid…
A serial killer is talking the streets of New York at night and murdering seemingly innocent bystanders. Witness reports have mentioned that the maniac is dressed as a Police officer, which makes tensions run high around the city. Could there really be a maniac cop on the force or is it a disguise for something far more sinister?
Some critics deny that this is a slasher picture and instead label it as a revenge flick in the vein of Death Wish et al. I completely disagree with that assessment, because the strong, silent bogeyman and countless examples of genre self-recognition mean that it’s definitely got the right recipe to sit alongside its brethren here on this website. In fairness, the larger budget allows Cohen to crossbreed various cinematic styles and there is something here for action audiences, those who like vigilante flicks and also back-street exploitation thrillers.
From the off you can tell that Maniac Cop is a SLASH above the usual plop that was littering shelves or being released DTV this late in the cycle, due to some decent photography and the obvious qualities that an experienced director and production team automatically bring. Lustig cloaks the screen in lingering shots of dark and dilapidated streets that bring a sleazy Taxi Driver-esque feel to the opening. This brings an abundance of energy to the feature and the killer, who is seen mainly in silhouette, has a supernatural ambiance not too dissimilar to that of Michael Myers.
Turning a cop in to the bogeyman offers a wealth of potential for set pieces and one of those is especially effective. Two backstreet muggers attempt to rob a barmaid of her bag, but after a brief struggle, she manages to escape and run to the supposed safety of a uniformed officer. It’s a well-delivered opening sequence as the shadowed maniac hoists the female up high and snaps her neck in front of the on looking thugs who are rightly bewildered by the sight of a Policeman sinking to lower depths of criminality than even they could muster.
Compared with Lustig’s Maniac from 1980, the film is much more restrained in terms of gratuitous special effects. Terror is conveyed in the brutality of the death scenes, the choices of victims and a haunting score, which is authentic and memorable. The prison murder sequence is incredibly vicious and was deemed too gruesome by the BBFC, who removed it, almost completely, from the 18 rated print. But that’s the only gooey shot in the entire picture and the rest of the kill scenes are relatively tame. I liked the police station massacre, which was neatly paced and creepy, but again was surprisingly dry on the gore score.
Cohen attempts to transcend the normal template of the slasher cycle by focusing on the media reaction to the effects of a killer at large. It doesn’t take long before citizens begin to fear the boys in blue and one character rightly mentions that criminals now have a valid justification to fight back against the Police. Things come to a head when an elderly woman shoots an officer who was only trying to help her with her broken down vehicle and the town mayor rightly begins to panic.
It’s in these multiple plot additions that Maniac Cop somewhat looses its way. The direction fails to sustain the high energy levels that it began with and before long things begin to become predictable. There’s so much going on in the first twenty-minutes that it leaves little time to tie up all lose ends. The story hints at a whodunit mystery initially by keeping the monster in silhouette and showing characters that share his build or act suspiciously, but then chooses to reveal the nut job’s identity about halfway through. There’s an underdeveloped sub-story about his motive, which never gets resolved and the conclusion feels somewhat rushed, uninspired and ultimately disappointing when you consider how the script had started with so much creativity.
In terms of eighties horror, excuse the pun, but Maniac Cop has a cast to die for. Tom Atkins plays it straight and delivers a rugged and approachable performance and the film does miss him after his early exit, which was as much as a shock as when Tom Skerritt bowed out of Alien back in 1979. It takes guts to kill off your tough and sympathetic leading man. Cult favourite Bruce Campbell doesn’t get the comedic style of script that plays to his strengths and he is somewhat subdued here, although it was an interesting choice to make him more of an anti-hero. He is exposed as an insensitive adulterer quite early on in the runtime, but just about manages to win over the audience with his unique style of B-Movie charm. Overall the dramatics were never weak enough to ruin the momentum and Robert Z’Dar was the perfect choice for the marauding psychopath.
Maniac Cop is a good horror film and one of the best late entries to the slasher cycle. I don’t want to steer you away with my minor gripes, but I am slightly disappointed because it had everything that was needed to be great instead of just ‘good’ and ended up following the pattern that we have seen time and time again. Still, the opening 30 minutes are absolutely amazing and Atkins’ grizzled performance itself makes this worth a look. Also, keep an eye out for the goof when Laurene Landon is handcuffed to a dead Police officer and just before the scene fades he sits up and moves out of the way of the smashing glass!
Killer Guise: √√√√
Final Girl √√